Filial Zuneigung » Filial affection witnessed at 0700 hours
Twin Cities, Gemini
“So, we gonna use it or what? I mean, this is a good time to use it, right? Not like there’s any better time to use it.”
Stomp, stomp. Sigh.
“Well, maybe we’d need to lie low or something, but it ain’t like we ain’t gonna be able to use it again if we use it now, right?”
Stomp, stomp, sigh.
“And if we used it up, Francis’d give us another… right?”
Like always, when Carl couldn’t solve problems with his hands, he floundered around running his mouth until some unfortunate soul wandered into his path and met head-on with his fists. Usually, this would be when Francis would intervene and diffuse the situation, but Francis was not around.
And Allen didn’t have the time to step in. Time was another form of currency, and he was short. A third of his funds were being saved for future troubles; another third was being spent on the children that Francis had dumped on them before running off just like their mother did when things got rough with their father; and a decent portion was being invested in the medical expenses of one Cadence Morello.
Cadence Morello, who was residing in the next room over. A real sleeping beauty. So deep in sleep that it’d been over a week since she’d cracked open an eye. After she’d keeled over in the warehouse the other day, they’d immediately dropped her off at the doc. They’d expected her to wake up and dash away to avoid paying back expenses, but she remained unconscious for days that were now bleeding into weeks.
At the moment Allen was seated in the halls just outside of the doc’s main office. The peeling walls and chipping phone booth set off to the side brought a vague sense of nostalgia. Maximillian and Stefano were discussing a recent football game by that phone booth, while Muccio—a newer hire-on—was following behind Carl as he paced.
“I mean, the doc’s doing his third round of mumbo-jumbo Specialist medical stuff, and he still hasn’t found a damn thing,” Carl continued, pushing Muccio aside. “Maybe it’s gotta do with that thing that Cadence mentioned a while back. “‘Real Conductors.’”
“Yeah. That’s what I said—”
“Let’s get him then.”
Carl stopped and turned. “Really?”
“No point in talkin’ about it instead of doin’ it. If Francis can fix whatever’s happening with Cadence, then that means I won’t have to pay the doc anymore. If Cadence recovers, then I won’t have to pay extra for the other men to watch the children. She’s good with ‘em.”
Carl snapped his fingers. “Like that word Cadence keeps tossin’ around nowadays. ‘Cost-benefit analysis.’” He motioned for Muccio. “The hell are you waiting for? Get it out!”
Muccio stiffened before digging through the satchel slung at his waist.
“Hurry up, dammit!”
Muccio whipped out the proto-conductor he’d been entrusted with, but its tip got caught on the strap of his bag. In a panic, he jerked the proto-conductor hard and freed it from the strap. It flew from his hand with the effort and went flying through the air. Carl lunged for it but it slipped through his fingers and hit the ground. The glass shattered, spewing dark liquid all over the wooden floorboards. Allen still hadn’t a clue why the doc still hadn’t changed it out for tile. Blood didn’t stain too easily on tile compared to wood.
Muccio took a step back but there was no escape from Carl’s wrath. Carl grabbed him by the scruff with one hand and shook him.
“The hell is wrong with you, Muccio?! How the hell are we supposed to reach my brother now, you bastard?!”
There was a sudden updraft of wind.
“Carl, wait.” Allen motioned towards the splatter of black liquid.
It was beginning to pulsate with light. Carl released Muccio as a figure rose out from the glow. It was a young man dressed in a maroon sweatshirt with a suit jacket carefully pulled over it as if to appear professional. A white snake graced the right side of his face, while a book rested in his left gloved hand. Heavy, reserved, dark gloom seemed to ooze out every fiber of his being. Darkness that kept as the light below him dimmed.
Francis greeted them casually as he stepped out onto solid ground: “Good eveni—”
A gunshot went off. A streak of red blossomed across Francis’s right cheek, nearly splitting his tattoo in half. A bullet was wedged into the wall just behind his ear.
There was a beat of silence.
“Who the hell fired that damn gun?!” Carl roared, whipping around. He locked eyes with Muccio standing just behind him. There was a gun still billowing from smoke held loose in the man’s hands.
“I-It was an a-accident!” Muccio stammered. “H-He surprised me. I thought—”
“Who do you think you shot at?!” Carl roared, grabbing Muccio by the scruff and shaking him hard enough to give him a concussion. “I thought you had more brains than that! Did that last shoot-out knock out your last brain cell?!”
“You forget what your boss looks like?! Huh?!”
“Let’s not overreact, Carl,” came Francis’s reply as he rubbed away the streak of red with his thumb. “The pain is minimal.” The tattoo remained blinding white.
Carl stared. “Er…”
Allen asked after a beat, “How’d you know to come here?”
“When my gate is opened, I hear everything,” Francis answered. “Is it not customary to come when you are called?”
“You…” Carl grumbled, releasing Muccio. “You’re still talkin’ like that?”
“Talking like what?”
“It’s about Cadence. That’s why we were lookin’ for you,” Allen interjected. “There’s something up.”
“The True Conductor…” Francis murmured.
“Yeah.” Allen reached into his pocket. “Cadence.”
Francis’s face finally folded with concern. Allen figured one of the positives about Theta was that Theta was awfully honest with emotions. No more trying to guess what was behind Francis’s calm facade all the time.
“What’s happened?” Francis scanned the area. “This is the doc’s place, isn’t it?”
“She randomly passed out a little over a week ago,” Carl explained. “Not drunk, not nothing. Thought you’d have a clue since you’ve got all that smarts tucked in your brain now.”
Francis placed a thoughtful hand over his mouth. “It could have to do with the nature of the True Conductor. Because of their defects, they’re able to increase the flow of their vitae into the one they’re connected with and—for the lack of a better word—‘possess’ them. Due to the re-directed vitae flow, they lose consciousness when they do this... I believe Cadence calls it an ‘override,’ but the correct term for it is Inverse Vitae Anisotropy Polarization.”
“Hell, Francis, just say ‘override.’”
“... But you said she’s been unconscious for over a week now?” Francis blinked. “That’s unusual…. May I see her?”
“Well, the doc is doin’ his usual mumbo-jumbo stuff with her right, so you’d have to wait.”
Allen shook out three v-cigarettes from the packet he’d drawn out from his pocket. He lit one for himself, handed one to Carl, and offered the last to Francis. “You have a moment?”
Francis stared at the v-cigarette for a long time. After a while, he accepted it, ignited it, and took a drag.
* * *
“You sure you don’t wanna play?”
They were now all sitting at a table that Muccio pulled out from one of the doc’s offices. The poker game was near its end. Muccio and Stefano had already folded, while Carl, Max, and Allen himself were still going strong. Although Francis was sitting with them, he was engrossed in the book he’d brought along.
Francis flipped a page without looking up. “I have no interest in dishonest games.”
“You’re just afraid to lose.” Carl scoffed.
Francis responded thoughtfully, “I suppose I am now... It’s interesting how an entire perspective shifts with just a single addition or subtraction. Perhaps that’s truly why we choose people who are about to reenter the cycle. ‘Goodwill’ can conceal many things. Apprehension to shift viewpoints; fear of whittling away at determination. Although… to change or not to change—and whether that is actual change in the first place… I think that’s the key to understanding everything. But only time will tell.”
Carl stared. “The hell are you talkin’ about…?”
Francis shut his book. “Forget I said anything.”
“Forgotten,” Allen said in unison with Carl.
“So,” Francis continued, “how’s the business?”
Out of habit, Stefano, Muccio, and Maximillian put down their cards and left the table. Francis watched them go.
“It’s been tight,” Allen explained. “Our bars and casinos aren’t making half as much as they used to. And since we’ve been having to lie low, we haven’t been gettin’ that additional income. And kids are expensive. We’ve been lookin’ into a new product though. Cross between sorrowheat and morrowheat.”
Humming in thought, Francis took a drag. “Have you tried contacting Mr. Sieler?”
“The gook that owns that jewelry shop on Pungale?” Carl arched a brow. “Spoke to him last week. The bastard kept yappin’ about the fact that he’s openin’ ten stores in the city. It’s like he forgot who got him there.”
“He started investing in vitae cigarettes roughly half a year ago.” Francis flicked ash off his bud. “I gave him three months’ worth of free rent since he was in a tight spot last year. Selective generosity, if you will.”
“The market’s gone up for v-cigs lately,” Allen noted.
“So we should push him?” Carl looked between them hesitantly.
“Say it’s interest and collect,” Francis affirmed. “He may not budge on the first try, but he’ll probably bow on the second. He’s… a pushover.”
Allen took a drag. “If we don’t go by check and do it under the table to subtract the taxes… we’re lookin’ at about fifteen thousand cens. And that’s just the down payment.”
“That’s what I’m talking about.” Carl cracked a grin. “Thanks, Francis.”
“Anything for the children,” Francis replied. He took a long drag and smiled wanly. “And for the family business.”
“Man, it ain’t the same without you around.” Carl threw his cards on the table revealing that he’d somehow gained two ace-of-hearts. “What’ve you been up to, anyway?”
Francis glanced down at the cards with judgment. “I’ve been looking into my hometown.”
“You mean y’ve been back in Aries?” Carl arched a brow.
Frowning, Allen gathered the cards and shuffled them.
“You went back to Ophiuchus?” Carl did a double-take. “You crazy, Francis?”
“I wasn’t able to enter the Serpens Establishment through my gates. They were very thorough after what I did here…” Francis murmured, brows creasing. “This city is filthy as it always is and reeks of corruption. Every time I think about the generator conductor humming beneath the temple, I’m disgusted... but it’s also where I grew up. And after what I’ve done, I should take responsibility for this too.”
Carl cleared his throat. “That’s great, Francis. Really great. Y’know if you come back, we can work on that, but why the hell did you go back there? To Ophiuchus?”
“The Ophiuchus that came after my time as Theta and before my time as Francis—I’m interested in that. Rather, the people.”
“All you need to do is pop open any history book.” Carl swallowed a yawn. “Most mixed-Ophiuchians ended up siding with the other countries when the Ophiuchians declared war back then. Pure-blooded Ophiuchians ‘fought the good fight’ or whatever they say.”
“And what happened to them afterwards?”
Carl shrugged. “The pure-bloods? Maybe in the Black Constellation Detention Center down in the Serpens Establishment still? War crimes and all that.” He jabbed a finger at Francis. “Didn’t you keep records on that stuff?”
Francis leaned forward, hands clasped, eyes narrowed. “But what isn’t recorded…?”
“So”—Allen pocketed the cards—”your head on straight now?”
Francis hummed, took another drag. “It’s like constantly peering through a looking glass. It’s foggy. Can’t tell whether it’s a mirror or a window, but I can recognize the shapes and have a vague feeling about what’s there.”
Allen flicked off his v-cig. “And which side of the glass you standing on?”
Francis smiled as if amused. “Who knows.”
* * *
“My, that’s a face I haven’t seen in quite some time.”
Sounding very much unalarmed by Francis’s appearance, Doctor Fabrizzio welcomed them all into his office.
“It’s good to see you, Doctor Fabrizzio,” Francis greeted him cordially before locking eyes with the bed resting beside the backside wall.
Cadence lay there sleeping soundly. Would’ve looked peaceful if it weren’t for all the medical equipment around her. The last time Allen had seen her this relaxed was about eight years ago after she, Fortuna, Nico, and Carl had downed an entire crate of sweetbread they’d stolen from a bakery shop. They’d eaten themselves sick and into a coma.
Approaching the bed, Francis reached for his belt and pulled out the knife holstered there. He drew it across his bare palm and re-sheathed it in one fluid motion. He dribbled blood into Cadence’s mouth and smeared it over her chest. Didn’t even hesitate or blush.
“Intriguing,” the doc said, leaning in closer.
Francis paid him no mind and pressed his gloved hand against Cadence’s chest. The area began to glow familiarly, and Francis’s hand sank into the light. Eyes half-lidded, he reached deeper and deeper, until his entire body suddenly tensed. He jerked backwards, ripping his hand out and stumbling back. His body went rigid.
Carl startled. “What is it—”
Without warning, Francis lunged for Carl—no, for the gun holstered to Carl’s waist. Carl barely had the time to shout before Francis whipped the weapon out and pointed it squarely at him. Although Carl was the one at gunpoint, Francis was the one who took three steps backwards.
“Stefano, Max, and Muccio, don’t move”—Francis pointed the gun at the trio as they started reaching for their belts. When they froze, he aimed the gun back at Carl—“or I’ll shoot and drop you through one of my gates fifty meters above the city.”
“Dammit, Francis!” Carl snapped. “You said you had your head on straight!”
“Carl, please shut up for a minute,” Francis said calmly, sounding oddly more like himself than he had in a long time. “Strip.”
Allen remained silent.
Carl did a double-take. “... What?!”
“I said strip. All of you.”
“The hell, Francis?!” Carl snapped. “Is this some weird ELPIS—”
“Just do it.” Allen shrugged off his blue suit jacket and slipped off his shoes and socks.
After doing a double-take and shouting a couple of profanities, Carl obliged. When he noticed Muccio, Max, and Stefano staring dumbly, he snarled at them, “The hell are you just standin’ there for? You deaf?!”
The trio scrambled to whip off their clothing. Doctor Fabrizzio complied nonchalantly, casually, like he was taking off clothing to sunbathe at the beach.
When they were down to just their boxers, Francis looked at them up and down, tilted his head left and then right. “Turn around.”
Hands in the air, Allen turned. He signaled for the others to follow suit.
A pair of footsteps approached him from behind, and a shadow spilled along the floor. Allen turned his head and met Francis’s gaze. The worry there was clear.
After studying their backs for a minute, Francis lowered the gun. His shoulders loosened. “Good. That’s a relief—”
Carl stormed up to him and ripped the gun from his hand. “Saints, Francis—”
“—if I wanted to have a gun pointed at me this early in the morning then I would’ve taken a damned stroll down Pungale alley!”
“Has anyone around you been acting strangely?” Francis asked unperturbed.
“Fuckin’ hell, Francis. Yes!” Carl snapped, holstering his gun and then jabbing a finger at Francis’s chest. “You!”
Francis looked at Carl as if he was stupid. “Don’t be ridiculous, Carl. I’m talking about any of the other men.” He met the doc’s gaze. “Any patients. Or—” His eyes widened a fraction of an inch as his gaze trailed to the side towards Stefano who was now standing only a foot away. He stared at Stefano’s feet—no, at Stefano’s socks which he had yet to take off.
Francis tensed, placing a hand on Carl’s shoulder. “Stefano, take off your socks.”
“Mr. Francis, come on. This is too much.” Stefano chuckled nervously, glancing at Carl then at Allen. “Boss, y’ve gotta admit that this is ridiculous.”
It was ridiculous. Even Allen’s ex-girlfriend hadn’t stripped him down to his boxers before. But when Allen eyed Francis’s hand on Carl’s shoulder, he said, “Still your boss. Take it off.”
Stefano stiffened, swallowed, peeled off his socks, and tossed them to the side. Francis tensed, and Allen followed his gaze to a dark blue mark wrapped around Stefano’s ankle. It held the shape of a scorpion.
“Yeah, Stefano got himself a tattoo when we sent him to Capricorn for some errands a couple weeks back,” Carl explained, following Francis’s line of sight. “Is ELPIS anti-tattoo now or somethin—”
And then it moved. The tattoo scrambled up and around Stefano’s leg to his bare chest to the nape of his neck. Almost as if it were alive. Muccio and Maximillian immediately startled away.
“Why’re you lookin’ at me like that, boss?” Stefano stepped forward, chuckling nervously. “After I’ve been sticking with you for this long after everything? You’ve just been planning to off me, haven’t you?”
Carl grimaced. “The hell are you sayin—”
“Stop looking at me!” Stefano snarled. “Leave me alone!” Without warning, he whipped out the knife at his belt and leapt at Francis.
A streak of blood blossomed in the air as Francis brought his hand out in alarm. The red bloomed with light and consumed them, and suddenly—
—they were all tumbling down the side of a building in free fall. The sun was eclipsing the horizon, and the air was familiarly humid and damp. The side of the building they were falling beside was of white limestone, and there was a familiar crimson red banner rolled down its side. Screeches resounded below where men and women manning stalls pointed up at them in alarm.
New Ram City?
Just above him, Francis and Stefano scuffled as they fell before disappearing in a blink into a gate that opened below them. The white limestone building and red flags disappeared from Allen’s sight a second later as he fell through a gate himself.
When he spilled out, it was darker, the air chilled. Tree brambles scratched at his face and chest as leaves whirled around him. His back cracked against a branch, and he flipped over and caught a glimpse of a glowing white tree in the distance before falling through another gate.
And now he was tumbling down the side of a metal slope. Dusk air whipped at his face as his knees and then arm cracked along the slope’s surface. He could hear Carl swearing, but it was deafened by the wind and a rumbling that resound below.
It was only after his head smacked against cold metal that he came to realize where exactly Francis had now sent them. Several meters beneath them, parallel v-lights began to flicker on and illuminate the body of a hurtling v-train. The Dioscuri Bridge.
Just as he was about to splatter against the surface of the train, a liquid line of pale tangerine light opened up underneath him again. He fell through it and smacked flat against a cold, hard surface. It took a moment for him to shake the throbbing pain out from his limbs, but he was still able to take in his surroundings.
Psychedelic warmth bled up from the v-lights lining the Dioscuri. It cast strange shadows across the small platform he’d landed on.
His shirt was wet. Blood. Probably Francis’s. It still churned Allen’s stomach. He was fine with spilling the blood of people who pushed too far, of greedy hired hands who took without asking, of competition, but... family blood was different.
Carl was on all-fours beside him, while the doc laid a foot away looking like his lights had been knocked out. Muccio was rolling around groaning. Maximillian lay unmoving a step away. Francis was nowhere to be seen.
“Look!” Carl jabbed a finger to the sky.
At the steel beam hanging a couple of meters above them stood Francis. Stefano was perched at the very edge of the beam across from him, balancing haphazardly.
“You’re dyin’ for a beatin’, Stefano!” Carl surged up to his feet, feeling fruitlessly around his waist for his gun. He seemed to have dropped it during their fall, but that didn’t stop him from cursing profusely.
Allen felt for his waist. Still there.
Francis called down to him. “Stop, Carl. You aren’t helping—”
Carl scowled at him. “ Me stop?! How ‘bout you stop throwin’ us off damn buildings—” He looked to Stefano’s knife then back to Francis. “Francis, get your ass down here!”
Ignoring him, Francis addressed Stefano, “When did you get here?”
Stefano stiffened under their gazes before snapping, “I’ve been here since the beginning, Mr. Francis! I was always here workin’ beside you—even through what happened with Verga and even through what you did with ELPIS—”
“I’m not speaking with you, Stefano...” Francis’s lips tightened. “Although I sincerely apologize for what’s happened.” His gaze darkened. “I’m speaking to that whisper at the back of your head.”
Stefano’s face contorted in confusion, and he looked down to Carl for assistance and then to Allen himself. Then, he lowered his gun and chuckled. “I’m surprised you didn’t drop me to my death as soon as you realized. I heard you were incorrectly initiated into a serial killer, so I assumed you’d have no problem doing that.”
Francis didn’t falter. “You exaggerate as always.”
“And you?” Stefano smiled blindly. “‘As always’ is something that applies more to you lot.” He waved the knife through the air. “But it looks like something’s changed—not your hypocrisy obviously... Why don’t you throw me through another one of your gates?” The smile intensified. “What are you so afraid of?”
“What’s going on, Francis?” Allen called out. “Another one of the ELPIS leaders?” He wasn’t in the mood to lose more to that cult.
“Don’t insult me,” Stefano snapped before his head drooped. “You’re always looking down on me… All I ever wanted was t’work alongside all of you. Be part of the family. Really a part of it—but I’m just as disposable as the next person! You’re always fixin’ t’find a way to get rid of me.” He lifted his head, his eyes cool and his lips curling into a smile again. “I’m something much more.”
“And something much worse,” Francis explained calmly. “That is a Manipulator. Both in name and conducting. Rather, it’s an offshoot—a vessel for a spore—of one. Stefano probably encountered one of the Manipulator’s offshoots when he went to Capricorn.”
Allen didn’t care much for conductors and conducting since the logistics were usually what Francis handled, but he’d seen cases of living manipulation before. He’d never seen a person being manipulated capable of speech. Not good for interrogations.
“That’s rude, Theta, but you’ve never been tactful with your words. I suppose that’s why Omicron was always good for you.” Stefano’s brows knitted, and he placed a hand over his heart. “I heard what happened. I truly am sorry. Omicron—Altair—was an honorable, good person.”
The pain that tightened Francis’s face was clear even in the darkness.
“Altair’s death was your doing though, wasn’t it? The brothers of that person you’re wearing spoke about it. You dropped a building on her. You also dropped a building on a little girl who frequented a toy store just across the street. You probably didn’t know or chose to avoid knowing—but I see everything and know everything.”
The pain was crushed into despair.
Carl took one look at Francis’s face and snapped, “Okay, fine, let’s blame your attitude on a Manipulator then, Stefano! But you’re still gettin’ a beating after we transmute that vitae outta you!”
“It isn’t that simple, Carl,” Francis stated after shaking himself. “This isn’t a normal manipulation. The amount of vitae that needs to be removed would be impossible for a normal Transmutationist to do. Even if it’s removed and Stefano survives, the damage has already been done.”
“Always so nihilistic.” Stefano hung his head before popping up again. “Just like those war dogs in Capricorn—oh, but I see that you’ve abandoned your anti-materialistic tendencies. Greed is seeping through every pore in your body. You’re attached. To me”—he pointed with his knife down to them—“and to them.” Stefano suddenly brought the knife up to his neck, and his eyes went wide as he sobbed. “I-I’m so sorry, M-Mr. Francis. I-I was just scared. I didn’t mean to. Please don’t bring my family into this. Please. They rely on me—”
“Stefano.” Francis held out a calming hand. “Nothing’s going to happen to you or your family. I promise. You’re good; you’re loyal. If you’re seeing something unusual, it isn’t real—”
“Please don’t! I’ll make up for it I promise. I’ll—” Staring wildly past Francis, Stefano pressed the knife deeper into his skin and drew blood. He took in a shaky breath and sighed. “You really haven’t changed. That same look in your eyes. Clinging to that same hope. Unfortunately—”
There was a gush of red as the knife sliced through Stefano’s jugular. The knife tumbled down into the station below, but Francis caught Stefano’s body before it met the same fate. There was gurgling for a fraction of a second—maybe even a quiet I’m sorry—before the rumble of the train intensified beneath them.
Allen suddenly remembered that Stefano was only seventeen. Francis had hand-selected him two years ago, half out of pity and half out of interest. The days were good back then. Before this ELPIS nonsense. Before Nico was carted out to Capricorn. Before Cadence became a True Conductor. Before Fortuna set her sights on the family title.
Carl’s voice cut Allen out of his thoughts. “Muccio, what’re you—”
Out of the corner of his eye, Allen registered that Muccio was now standing and wielding a knife he’d drawn out his knife from his boot. The man’s left sleeve was dripping with blood. He must’ve been cut—Allen realized—by Stefano during the confrontation in the doc’s office.
Without warning, Muccio leapt at him, blade drawn.
Allen had a bad feeling about that knife—got a feeling that he shouldn’t let it even scrape him—but Muccio was unearthly fast and the distance was too close to dodge. Silver glinted in the darkness, followed by warmth blossoming from Allen’s chest—
—and out from the glowing pale tangerine light that burst from that area rose Francis who caught the charging blade with his bare, ungloved hand. Francis pulled out fully from the gate and shoved Allen back.
“I never thought I’d see the day!” Muccio laughed, pushing the knife deeper.
“You’re finally afraid of losing something, Theta.” Muccio’s eyes were afire. “But that’s a good thing. That’s what passion’s about. Progress! If you stick around long enough, maybe you’ll even get to see the ending scene—”
Carl roared and flung himself at Muccio sending the man flying off the edge of the platform. Carl swore a second later and darted to the edge only to pull back with a grimace of possible remorse.
Francis ripped the knife out of his hand and threw it on the ground. When Carl approached him, his eyes widened. “Stay away from me!”
“Wha—Francis—” Carl stopped short. “If you’re worried about Manipulators and stuff—I don’t understand much about conducting—but Muccio wasn’t a Conductor. Wasn’t even using a conductor—”
“They don’t need a conductor to do what they do,” Francis interjected.
Without waiting to explain himself, he dashed to the edge of the platform, dipped his gloved hand in the blood pooling in his bare palm, and drew a circle around his wrist just below the cut. Without hesitation he placed his conductor over the circlet of red.
Allen’s heart leapt. “Wait—”
There was a burst of pale tangerine light followed by a spurt of crimson as Francis’s left hand was sliced clean off. The appendage tumbled down to the tracks below.
“Stay away,” Francis reaffirmed, hovering at the very edge. He swayed slightly but didn’t seem to be in pain. Seconds ticked by agonizingly as blood dribbled down from his open wound. Finally, his shoulders lost tension, and he took a step back. “So, they didn’t enter… And I’m the fool?”
He stumbled to the ground but caught himself with his good gloved hand. Placing his conductor over the puddle of red formed beneath him, he created a gate. He locked eyes with them before his body gave way and he was swallowed by his own portal. Without hesitation, Allen and Carl darted followed.
When they stepped out of—rather, fell out of—their brother’s gate, Allen was blinded by the brightness. When his eyes adjusted, he could tell they were in a cavern. Rock formations grew up at their feet and reached down from the ceiling, while light spilled in from a small hole opening up above. It was hard to say whether that light was coming in from a natural source or from the glowing waterfall cascading down from the opening.
A vitae stream.
The stream splashed down onto a series of archaic-looking, toppled white pillars that littered a pool of vitae below it. An overgrowth of green ate away at the pillars, giving it a decrepit look. Still, it had a sacred feel.
At the very lip of that pool lay Francis flat on his back.
Allen darted to his side with Carl just a step behind. That nightmarish night in the alleyway all those months ago gnawed at Allen’s memory.
“Saints, Francis!” Carl swore when they reached him. He made for Francis’s stump but hesitated. “What do we do? Allen, we gotta drag him through that portal thing and get the doc—”
A pair of footsteps resounded, and out from behind one of the toppled pillars came a woman wrapped in a white gown. Her wavy brown hair was disheveled, and she had a dazed look on her face.
Carl tensed, but Allen calmed him with a hand on the shoulder.
The woman approached them swiftly, studying their faces before blinking down at Francis. There was a familiar tattoo running from her chin to the nape of her neck and a glove conductor on her left hand.
“Oh…?” The woman tilted her head sleepily, foot skirting the edge of the red gathering below Francis’s body. “Is that Theta…?”
“Lambda…” Francis managed.
Lambda sank to her knees and inspected the bleeding stump. “This wasn’t done by the same suitcase peacekeeper that attacked Iota, was it? Suitcase is scary. He conducts just like the Saint Candidate of Libra, you know? I couldn’t fully heal Iota’s hand after that…”
“No. I did it to myself.”
“That’s not good...” She lifted his injury and stared. “How many vitae particles… Maybe 3.72 x 10 10? Lifespan truncated about ten years for me and five years for you. Is that acceptable?”
Lambda placed his arm on her lap, drew out a knife, and cut across her palm. She placed both of her hands over his wound. As blood dripped down from her cut, her conductor began to hum with white light. Her blood began to glow a second after as did the blood seeping from Francis’s injury. The two glowing liquids stretched out and connected to each other before fluctuating and condensing into a familiar shape. A hand.
Again, Allen didn’t care much for conducting, but he knew enough to understand that living conjuring wasn’t possible.
“Lambda is what you would consider a Specialist nowadays,” Francis explained. “I’m aware that living conjuring is not only outlawed but viewed as impossible in this era.” He stared up at the ceiling. “Don’t you find it ludicrous that your laws condemn conducting that prolong life yet allow conducting that shortens it? Though, of course, in a philosophical sense perhaps this wouldn’t be considered creating something that is truly ‘living’. Besides, this too is...”
Francis was talking nonsense again but at least he was talking.
The white vitae dimmed, solidifying into a full-on, flesh-and-blood hand. It looked funky, but it was a hand.
Carl let out a sigh of relief and snorted. “Hell, with all the Specialists you’ve got on board, we could make it big with the business.”
“Don’t get any bright ideas, Carl.” Francis sighed. “It only works for those whose vitae has been bleached.”
“You should rest.” Lambda hummed as she rose to her feet. “You lost a lotta blood.”
“I appreciate the concern.” Francis flexed his new hand.
“Hey.” Allen nodded at Lambda. “Thank you.”
Lambda blinked at him slowly, before humming to herself and drifting away towards the pillars.
“Please excuse Lambda,” Francis said, staring up at the ceiling calmly as if he hadn’t just been bleeding out a second ago. “The nature of Lambda’s ability causes her to expel large amounts of her vitae—”
Allen turned and found a man standing behind them. The man wore a crisp, gray uniform and had a metal gorget reading Militärpolizei dangling from his neck. A pair of square-glasses rested on the bridge of his nose, while a curled mustache occupied the space above his lips.
It took Allen a moment to realize that he was staring at the former police commissario Vincente Giustizia himself. Well, Tau.
Tau’s face contorted as soon as he locked eyes with them, and he fumed. “What is this?! How could you bring these pieces of filth here?!”
“Calm down, Tau.” Francis’s eyes narrowed as he pushed himself up into a sit. “Those are my brothers you’re talking about.”
Stiffening, Tau shut his mouth. His face remained beet red.
“You should know why I’m here.”
The color left Tau’s face and he looked Francis up and down, gaze lingering on the blood staining the ground. “Did you encounter...”
“In the Twin Cities.”
“So, they’re expanding their influence...” Tau concluded.
“I’m assuming it started shortly after our work in the Twin Cities.” Tau sighed. “Still a wasted opportunity if you ask me.” He sent Carl a glare. “Anyway, we were already looking into Capricorn since that country is working on those damned insulating ley lines. We were planning to dismantle the ones closest to the capital, but—”
Sounded like a waste of money, Allen thought. And a flippant way to speak about acts of terrorism too.
“—a couple of our recruits encountered offshoots of Scorpio and became infected offshoots themselves. We had to deal with them, of course… Anyway, Kappa was initiated recently so we sent them to Die Hauptstadt to look into it, and now—”
“Kappa is missing,” Francis concluded. “That doesn’t seem like a risk Gamma would take: sending only one to investigate. That is if I’m correct in assuming he’s the one you selected as leader this time?”
“Yeah, he’s leader.” Tau pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Gamma, Beta, and Iota are headed to Capricorn as we speak. The recruits have been called back, but...”
The next part of their conversation, Allen didn’t understand. A different language. Probably the original Ophiuchian language. He caught onto familiar words like ‘Leona’ and even ‘saint candidate of Libra.’ Not much else. Halfway through the conversation, Tau placed a hand on Francis’s arm.
“Gamma is still looking for you, Theta,” Tau continued in Common. “He’s set on sending you back to your resistor. I can’t say I disagree with him seeing the failure of what happened in the Twin Cities and the people you’re hanging around with—”
“The hell you say,” Carl challenged.
“You shut your damned mouth!” Tau snapped, jabbing a finger at him. “You criminal! The only reason you’re not behind bars is because you’re only second-rate to the issue we have now. The rule of this land is corrupt! Even if we can’t deal with you, your damned local law enforcement should! But even death isn’t enough punishment, since you’ll just return to the cycle anyways!”
“Enough,” Francis interjected. “That isn’t how that belief functions, Tau.”
Tau shut his mouth and grimaced. “I’m aware.” He shook his head again. “I can’t even understand whatever’s going through your head… but I do understand your sentiment towards Omicron, so I respect your decision. There isn’t precedent for people who choose to remain in faulty initiations, so I digress.”
Francis bent down and placed his conductor over the red stain on the ground beneath him. He opened a gate, pulled out a pair of proto-conductors, and dropped them into Tau’s hand.
Tau accepted the items with a frown. “Well… I’m heading out myself then, but don’t let these criminals stay here any longer. Loitering can easily turn into trespassing.” He tapped the proto-conductor on the stain on the ground, glowered at them, before locking eyes with Francis who clenched his glove-conductor. A second later, Tau disappeared through the gate.
“Good to see Giustizia is as friendly as ever,” Carl grumbled.
Allen nodded at Francis. “What’s goin’ on? Who are we lookin’ at?”
“... The enemy is the saint candidate of Scorpio. The Saint of Passion,” Francis replied, somewhat hesitant. “The danger is everyone. In everyone—”
“What?” Carl did a double-take. “Saint of Passion? You mean like that Monadism thing? Didn’t hear any news about any new saint candidates being chosen… not that I pay attention to the news. Is it like a religious movement we’re up against?” He held up a hand. “Wait, before that—was that really manipulation? Never seen anything like that before. Without a conductor?”
“There is no point in explaining. You would need at least a basic knowledge of vitae theory to understand the saint candidates and how they conduct.”
“I know enough,” Carl challenged.
“How many vitae particles are in a human being?”
Francis stared and then chuckled before continuing morosely, “I would teach you, but we don’t have time for that.”
“At least give me a rundown—”
“Why do you want to know? This topic rarely interests you.” Francis studied him. “Knowledge that isn’t used has no purpose. It merely collects dust. And since you aren’t getting involved—”
“‘Cause I wanna understand what’s goin’ through your damn head,” Carl half-grumbled, half-snapped. “And you don’t get to say anything about that.”
Francis’s brows rose before he sighed. “Scorpio’s abilities at base-level are exactly what you would expect of a Manipulator. However, unlike a typical Manipulator, Scorpio can manipulate living things due to the volume and nature of their vitae. We call the person or thing being manipulated an ‘offshoot,’ like an offshoot of a tree. We call the Manipulator’s vitae inside that offshoot a spore. Those offshoots are also capable of creating additional offshoots through the implantation of more spores. As you can see, it spreads quickly. Like a disease.”
“So…” Carl scratched his head. “The scorpion tattoo—”
“—marks the entry point but isn’t a facet of their conducting,” Francis explained. “It’s Scorpio marking territory.” He rubbed his palm. “Cutting the tattoo off will do nothing. If anything, it’s akin to the fruiting body of a mushroom. The living body—the mycelium—is invisible to the naked eye but is deeply embedded.”
“You really like analogies now,” Carl grumbled before eyeing Francis’s hand. “So when you sliced off your hand…”
“Yes, I removed the spore before it could germinate,” Francis replied. “I was very… lucky.”
Allen stared at Francis’s hand and frowned. “And Cadence?”
“Is a True Conductor.” Francis placed a hand over his mouth. “It’s different with her as you can see... I don’t believe Stefano was the one who infected Cadence. It was most likely someone she was connected with. But if this state remains, Cadence and those she is connected to will die. That’s a certainty.”
Carl did a double-take. “And you just gonna… let that happen?”
A look of hurt crossed Francis’s face. “Of course not. Although that would be the easiest solution...” He dropped his hand. “Don’t be concerned. I’ll handle it.”
“Alright!” Carl punched a fist into his palm. “So what do we do? How much money? Where do we start?”
His enthusiasm was kind of sad.
“There’s no ‘we,’ Carl. Scorpio is a skilled manipulator and torturer—”
“Well, I’ve been beaten senseless a bunch of times before. Know how to beat people senseless too—”
“You misunderstand me, Carl. It’s not physical torture.” Francis stared. “Physical torture is something you can escape. Once Scorpio enters you, they’re able to access your very surface-level thoughts and memories. You may think that’s not much, but that’s all Scorpio needs. Stefano’s words on that rooftop were his deepest fears. They might’ve been twisted by Scorpio, but those were his true thoughts... Scorpio rarely fully takes control of an individual, and yet the damage is clear. It doesn’t matter if you’re an ally, an enemy, or a neutral party—that person will try to break you.” He glanced at them morosely again with a faint, familiar glimmer of admiration in his eyes. “Even if it’s you or Allen, you wouldn’t stand a chance. Neither would I. But at least with me, I’d be harder to reach and infect.”
Carl grimaced. “I don’t like this… Doesn’t make a lick of sense.”
Francis said nothing for a long time. Carl tapped his foot impatiently but remained silent.
Finally, Francis said, “Allen, Carl, I’m going to ask you to do something for me. I know you won’t like it, but I need you to trust me—”
“You’re gonna ask us to be locked up in that room of yours again,” Allen concluded.
Francis blinked in surprise. “I understand if you’re apprehensive after what happened before, but I assure you my intention this time is to—”
Carl picked up Francis by the scruff. Despite Francis remaining impassive, Carl roared, “You think we’re going to let you just—”
“Stop it, Carl.” Allen frowned, lighting himself a v-cig. “No point in investin’ in somethin’ that you know’s gonna hit red.” He nodded at Francis. “We need to protect our assets.”
“But...” Carl glared at Francis, sighed, and released him. “As long as you’re not gonna throw us off another building or go off dyin’, then fine.”
* * *
Half an hour later, Allen and Carl were fully dressed and let into a familiar windowless, doorless room by Francis. Pi—Francis’s only friend now apparently—was there waiting for them. So were all of the children from the warehouse. Frankly, Allen was relieved to see them there. Good to see that both Francis and Theta shared efficiency.
The room was more well-furnished than it had been months ago. It was still missing v-lights and lit only by candles, but there was a record player set beside all the bookcases and even a liquor cabinet in the corner by the board game table. Looked like good brands to boot.
There were actual sofas and chairs scattered around too—luxurious ones that the children used as their playground. Upon noticing Carl, the children screeched and launched themselves at him. A beat later, they noticed Francis and abandoned Carl in favor of him. Francis greeted them calmly as they cheered Theta’s name. But despite being freed from the brats, Carl looked sour about it.
Francis departed with Pi without warning not soon after.
“I don’t like it,” Carl grumbled as he went through the bookshelves with the children dangling from his arms. “He’s the youngest but he’s runnin’ around actin’ like he’s callin’ all the shots...”
Allen understood the sentiment.
Francis and Pi returned three hours later looking mildly disheveled. Francis’s cheek was red with a handprint. Something about it screamed Fortuna. The children abandoned Carl and swarmed him again.
“The hell happened?” Carl asked.
“The doctor, Max, and Cadence are being kept separately in a place similar to this,” Francis answered without answering.
“Uh… And the Romanos?”
Instead of replying, Francis pointed to a small phone-box built into the corner. “If you find it necessary to conduct your business or if you wish to communicate with the others, you may use that.” He smoothed out his suit-jacket. “I’ll be leaving for some time to Capricorn. If you require anything, ask Pi. He’ll be moving in-between locations.” Turning to said Pi, Francis finished with, “The True Conductor is to be kept safe, but if signs of Scorpio appear, do what you must.”
Pi nodded, waving.
With that, Francis approached the familiar black-drawn door on the wall and pressed his conductor up against. The children moped back to Carl. Once it lit up, he stepped through. Allen held a hand up to Carl who was mid-protest and then followed Francis out.
A gray sky and a mist of rain greeted Allen as he stepped out onto what appeared to be the roof of a small building. He found Francis—no, Theta—standing at the very edge.
“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta didn’t turn to look at him. “My filial affection towards you as Francis only extends so far. If you become infected by Scorpio while you’re here, I will do what is necessary. But reassured, you will return to the cycle. Although... perhaps that’s just a personal comfort and fallacy as the True Conductor has said.”
“No one around. Not planning to stick around either,” Allen replied, joining him. He peered over the edge of the building and found people dusting the streets below. “This saint candidate sounds like big fish. Y’know a lot about ‘em. From those records of yours?”
“No. It’s something that I remember.”
“Sounds complicated but not what I’m here to talk about.”
Theta turned to him.
Allen gestured to the man’s hand. “You’re always doin’ stupid, reckless things whenever you get really heated. And you’ve been doin’ it a lot more recently. Not sure if that’s from Francis or Theta but doesn’t matter. Don’t ever do that again.”
“Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t hurt or if some woman can make it magically better. You find the smartest way to solve the problem with the least cost.” He pulled out a slender pistol from his waist and held it out to him. “Risk is okay. Bein’ stupid isn’t. Like I taught you.”
“... You have a lot of pride for a man whose brother has been labeled a terrorist.” Theta dipped his head. When he lifted it a second later and offered Allen a practiced smile, he was Francis again. He accepted the weapon. “Got it. Thanks for the reminder, Al.”
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
‘Francis’—because he was feeling a little less like Theta since visiting his brothers—paced through the gray alleyways of the Capricornian capital with mild interest. Because he was feeling a little more like Francis, he had no issue covering up his tattoo with a fine dusting of white powder. There wasn’t any sense in keeping the tattoo visible just because it was a somber symbol of honor, pride, and promises at the risk of being identified by it.
That act of sacrilege aside, he’d spent the past half hour wandering the residential area of the city. After finding nothing too out of the ordinary, he’d traveled here to the centermost military district.
This city had changed greatly in the past several centuries, the stone walkways having been flattened into asphalted roads and the small limestone buildings having grown into towering gray monuments that bled rigidity. Black flags dotted every building and lamppost in sight. The grand Capricornian symbol paraded every street corner. Men and women in military uniforms paced the sidewalks.
Something was happening here.
Francis was very well-aware of the fact that he was being watched, but it didn’t seem as if it was by any of Scorpio’s eyes. Once when he saw a shadow passing overhead, he caught a glimpse of a tall figure wearing a wooden mask of Sagittarian origin. That shadow hadn’t kept to him long, receding as soon as he’d cast an innocent glance upwards.
Nothing to be concerned about at the moment.
As he passed beneath a large Capricornian banner, a flash of blue caught his eye. When he peered up, he found a large painted cartoonish eye staring down at him. The paint was still wet, bleeding down the banner and dripping onto his face.
He wiped a fleck of blue off his cheek and studied the banner in thought. It looked like the eye was shedding a tear.
Francis had seen this symbol during his recent research. The anti-military, somewhat radical Verbundene Augen. Many movements like this came and went. That was the wheel of time. However, if the Manipulator was here, then perhaps this movement was...
He muttered under his breath, “You really are cruel—”
A thunderous boom trembled through the ground nearly knocking Francis off his feet. A series of shouts resounded in the distance, followed by the crescendo of shattering glass.
An explosion. Near one of his gates. He was certain.
Francis quickly drew blood, painted a gate on the ground, and slipped through it. He emerged a second later from a gate not too far from the one he’d entered.
The first thing he was met with was a cloud of smoke. Shadows drifted around him through the fog. He caught glimpses of panicked civilians wielding signs, military police officers wielding conductors, and medical Conductors with armbands marked with red crosses dipping in and out of the shroud. It was hard to tell who was chasing who.
As he advanced deeper into the smog and passed by a series of crumpled iron gates, a small body collided with his own. It was a breathy woman with wispy blonde hair and doe-like brown eyes.
Upon catching her, Francis asked, “What happened?”
The woman gushed, “Oh, it was awful! An entire hospital just came down! Can you believe it? People were arguing and all of a sudden there was a big flash of light and—boom!”
Light? Conductor. Disgusting.
“Wait—you’re!” The woman’s eyes widened. “Mr. Foxman! From the Rosario Round!” She pointed at her face. “It’s me! Remember? Louise!”
Francis had never seen this woman before in his life—neither as Francis nor as Theta. He was certain.
“You should leave.” He moved her aside to continue deeper.
“Wait! Mr. Foxman! Wait!”
The woman chased after him as he entered a clearing dotted with rubble and bodies. Police officers, civilians, men and women dressed in lab coats—they were scattered everywhere. Alive or dead, unknown.
One particular body caught Francis’s eye: a man dressed in military police gear. He was draped across the remains of an iron gate with a blade-conductor protruding from his back. The vitae was white.
Francis approached him and pulled out the blade-conductor. It hadn’tt de-activated yet meaning that it was a proto-conductor. Disgusting.
But whose was it? Perhaps it belonged to Kappa since Kappa was a Projector and was active now. But why would Kappa use a proto-conductor? Gamma was especially conservative, so it couldn’t have been on his directive. Was this one of the regular members? A different sect? Or—
“Put that conductor down!” came a shout from the gloom.
A wind whipped through the clearing, unveiling a toppled building surrounded by a grave of bricks to Francis’s left. In front of what once had been a stairway leading to the entrance of the building lay a metal plate with a red cross engraved into it. Beside it was a sign in Capricornian with the Augen’s symbol painted at its corner. Beside that rested a rifle conductor of Capricornian-design.
And in front of all the chaos stood a woman dressed in a monochrome suit. The symbol on the white armband she wore mocked him from the distance. A peacekeeper. A familiar one.
Gabrielle Law stared at him with her extended glove-conductor just beginning to spark with magenta flame. “Aren’t you… Francis Foxman?”
- Town of Morioh
- Luckiest Unlucky Person Alive
Hobbyist writer, epidemiology graduate student, case investigator, retired weeb. I don’t have flashbacks; I have cringebacks. And the person who rings me up the most is Spam Likely ♡
(If you’re reading this, have a great day!)